Purged by Peter Laws: Book Review

I first happened upon the Reverend Peter Laws in the same place that I suspect many readers will have done – in the pages of Fortean Times. Issue 268, Nov 2010 ran an article called Holy Terrors in which he talks about how he was able to reconcile both his faith and his love of scary movies. That article was a revelation to me because, as a Christian, I had always been rather embarrassed by my love for scary films, Stephen King novels and all things spooky. It was that article that helped me understand that I could still practice my faith and enjoy horror – watching, reading, and a few years later, writing (an article in a later issue of Fortean Times was also instrumental in that, but that’s a story for another time).

When I finally embraced Twitter and started using it for more than just complaining about late-running trains, one of the first accounts I followed was @revpeterlaws who was just about to release his first novel, Purged.

Following a tragic incident, Matt Hunter left the clergy and his faith behind. Now a university professor teaching sociology he tries to debunk the Christian faith while moonlighting as a consultant for the police, assisting them with religiously motivated crimes. When his architect wife is invited to the village of Hobbs Hill to tender for a new church building project Matt is drawn back into the world he tried to leave behind and also finds himself mixed up in a murder investigation where everybody is a suspect and nobody is safe!

I don’t normally read crime. Not that I dislike it, but there is so much horror to get through that I don’t really want to miss out. The last crime novel I read was Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes which I really quite liked, but I still approached this novel with some trepidation.

I needn’t have been worried because it turns out that Peter Laws the crime author and Peter Laws the horror fan can happily co-exist. While this is definitely a crime novel (in the amateur detective sub-genre) there is plenty to keep the horror fan happy. For the gore-hounds, there are some pretty gruesome murders as well as a rather nasty car accident involving some unsuspecting wildlife (that passage left me feeling particularly uncomfortable as I once ran a fox over on the dark, winding road from Scarborough to Whitby).

Even fans of supernatural horror are catered for; While there are no outright ghostly goings-on, there are still some pretty creepy passages, some outright terrifying dream sequences and just the smallest hint (which worms its way into the back of your brain and doesn’t let you forget it’s there) that maybe, just maybe, there is a sinister higher power pulling the strings. On top of that, like The Wicker Man or Hot Fuzz, it’s a crime story with a classic Folk Horror setup – an outsider arrives at a secluded location who through the course of his investigation finds himself at odds with the skewed beliefs of the unusual, often unfriendly and unhelpful locals.

The central mystery is fascinating: The village’s few atheists all appear to be vanishing or committing suicide, leaving notes to say that they have turned to Christ before their demise. Peter weaves an intricate web, handing a fairly large cast of suspects with aplomb. At numerous times I was certain that one character or another was the killer but there are more red herrings than you can shake a tin of sardines at, which kept me on my toes. Often ensemble pieces like this can suffer from the characters becoming interchangeable but here each different person we meet is well realised and identifiable.

The pacing is superb. It starts off slowly, almost leisurely as the family treat Mrs Hunter’s busman’s holiday as a vacation before things start to ever-so-slowly accelerate, escalating in a heart-pounding last few chapters, which I sped through, just like Matt Hunter racing around the countryside of Oxfordshire in pursuit of his quarry.

From a horror point of view, Purged gets the big thumbs up from me but there is much more to it than that. As someone who has been immersed in the Christian world for most of my adult life (I was director of music at the same church from 1998 until I moved away in 2015), much of the church based sections really resonated with me. On more than on occasion, I found myself recognising people or situations in the events unfolding on the page. And I never thought I’d see the name Matt Redman pop up in a horror story (In case you don’t recognise the name, he’s a very popular writer and performer of Christian pop songs, many of which are used as congregational hymns in modern churches)!

As well as satisfying my spiritual and horror-fan sides, Purged also spoke to me as a child of Generation-X. Peter’s writing style is casual, almost to the point of being flippant, but it works. He narrates with little humorous asides and pop-culture references which only someone who grew up in the 70s and 80s would really understand the full meaning of. At times reading Purged felt like I was hanging out with old school friends telling each other thrilling tales of terror and derring-do!

I really enjoyed Purged and while it’s clearly aimed at horror and crime fans, I’d encourage Christians to give this a go too. Be warned though, once you venture into the mysterious world of Hobbs Hill, you won’t want to leave!

Purged, as well as Peter’s other Matt Hunter thrillers, Unleashed, Severed and Possessed as well as his nonfiction books The Frighteners and Weird are all available from his Amazon Author page.

The soundtrack accompaniment to Purged, with music composed and performed by Peter himself (and influenced by the likes of Goblin, John Carpenter and Fabio Frizzi) can be streamed or purchased as a high-quality download from his Bandcamp page.